Driving in New Zealand

Driving around New Zealand will allow you to see those parts of this wonderfully scenic country that tourist operators haven't discovered yet.


A rural highway in South Westland

Speed and distance in New Zealand are shown in metric units. For those used to imperial units, it is easy to miscalculate the time needed for travel.

If you are travelling below the posted speed limit on highways and holding up other traffic, you must pull over to the left to allow them to pass, or increase your speed to the posted speed limit, conditions allowing.

The minimum age to obtain a car or motorcycle driving licence in New Zealand is 16 years, although it takes a minimum of 18 months and two practical driving tests before someone can drive unrestricted. You can legally drive for up to 12 months if you have a current driving licence from your home country. It must be in English or you must have an approved English translation such as an International Driving Permit (IDP) to accompany it. All conditions on your overseas licence apply in New Zealand, e.g. automatic transmission only or needing to wear corrective lenses. If your licence has been suspended in your home country, you cannot drive in New Zealand until the suspension ends. You must carry your licence at all times when driving.

The New Zealand Road Code and self-test questions are available online from the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), or can be purchased from any AA office and from most book stores.

On-line lessons and resources for people intending to drive in New Zealand (especially oriented towards rental cars or rental campervans or RVs) are available free from DrivingTests.co.nz.

Keep left

Drive on the left-hand side of the road. If you are used to driving on the right, you need to concentrate at all times. Take particular care when pulling out from lay-bys and driveways or when you are tired. It is very easy to have a lapse of concentration and to revert to habit. Such lapses have caused a number of fatal head-on accidents in New Zealand. Many inter-city roads lack median barriers, so there is nothing to force the driver to stay on the correct side of the road.

Highway network

State Highways are marked with a red shield.

The main national highway network in New Zealand is the State Highway network, which connects major towns, cities and destinations in both main islands. State Highways are indicated by a number in a red shield, and directional signage on State Highways is green. State Highway 1 runs the length of both islands, State Highways 2-5 and 10-58 are in the North Island, and State Highways 6-8 and 60-99 are in the South Island. Highways are numbered roughly north to south, e.g. State Highway 18 is in Auckland, State Highway 58 is in Wellington, and State Highway 88 is in Dunedin.

Due to New Zealand's sparse population, most intercity State Highways are undivided two-lane roads (one lane in each direction) with at-grade intersections. Multi-lane divided highways, termed motorways or expressways, are generally only found near major cities. Motorways are fully grade-separated and are reserved for motorised traffic only; expressways can be used by non-motorised traffic and may have the occasional at-grade intersection. On lesser trafficked State Highways, vehicles may encounter narrow roads with limited overtaking opportunities and single-lane bridges; one State Highway still even has unsealed sections!

Toll roads

There are three toll roads in New Zealand, located near Auckland and Tauranga. All are electronic toll roads; there are no booths so you need to purchase the toll before or within three days after using the road. Tolls can be purchased online at tollroad.govt.nz, at selected BP and Caltex petrol stations (a $1.20 transaction fee applies), or by phoning 0800 40 20 20 (a $3.70 transaction fee applies). You will need you vehicle's registration number.

A light vehicle is any car, motorcycle or other motor vehicle weighing under 3500 kg (7700 lb); a heavy vehicle is any motor vehicle weighing 3500 kg or over. There is no extra toll payable for trailers and caravans.

Road signs

No stopping

New Zealand road signs generally follow international conventions. The full range of signs is illustrated in the New Zealand Road Code. There are three types:

Regulatory signs—those that must be obeyed by law—have a red border or background. Red on a road sign indicates there is a road rule that will be broken if the sign is disobeyed, and a fine may be handed out.

Give way
Warning stop sign ahead

Warning signs, which should be obeyed for safety reasons, have black borders and symbols with a yellow (permanent) or orange (temporary) background.

Information signs, which give information, normally have white borders and symbols or text with either a blue, green, or brown background. This includes many parking signs, and fines may be imposed by the local council, rather than the police, if parking limits are exceeded. Rectangular blue signs with a white border that read Pxx (where xx is a number) indicate the maximum number of minutes that a vehicle may remain parked in that area (e.g. P60 indicates maximum 60 minutes).

Road markings

White lines are used to mark the roads; solid lines indicate road boundaries, parking spaces, stopping positions and centre lines at intersections. Broken or dotted lines indicate lanes and centre lines. As a general rule, it is permissible to cross a broken white line, while a solid white line indicates some road rule limits when that line should be crossed.

Yellow centre lines are used to indicate when passing or crossing the centre line is not permitted. Broken yellow lines on the side of the road are used to indicate No Stopping areas or parking spaces reserved for special vehicles.

Controlled intersections (traffic lights or signs) have limit lines that vehicles need to stop behind at these intersections (officially, you must stop with your front wheels behind the line - your front bumper is allowed over the line). These lines are often set back a few metres from the intersection itself and if you cross the line, say at a right turn, your vehicle may not be detected by the traffic light sensors and you may not get the green light.

Diagonal, often yellow, cross hatchings in an intersection shows that the exit to the intersection often is blocked, and you must not obstruct the intersection by stopping in the (marked) area of the intersection, though this rule applies at every intersection, marked or not.

Large diagonal white lines in the centre of the road indicate a 'flush median'. This may be used only when turning right, never for overtaking.

Bus lanes are often, though not always, painted green. Cars should not be driven in bus lanes unless a sign indicates permission; some bus lanes may be open to cars that are carrying passengers or travelling at certain times of the day or week. You may travel for 50 metres in a bus lane if you have just entered a road or are going to turn left within this distance.

Pedestrian crossings

At pedestrian crossings (zebra crossings), white parallel lines are painted across the road. A white diamond is usually painted on the road before pedestrian crossing, together with warning signs and amber flashing lights or round orange reflectors on black and white striped poles at the crossing.

Drivers must stop for pedestrians waiting at the crossing. This applies to the whole crossing and pedestrians on both sides of the road, even if the white centreline passes through the crossing or there is a painted centre median. Only when there is a raised traffic island may the crossings in either traffic direction be treated separately. Vehicles may proceed once the pedestrian has safely passed by the front of their vehicle.

If the word SCHOOL is painted by the diamond or on the warning sign, the crossing is controlled by a School Patrol with round STOP signs. Traffic must stop and stay stopped if even one school patrol stop sign is displayed on either side of school patrol crossings. Although these crossings are often operated by trained school children, there is generally a responsible adult supervising too. Crossing patrols operate about half an hour before and after school, typically 08:30-09:00 and 14:00-15:30

Traffic signals (traffic lights)

Traffic lights in Auckland

All New Zealand traffic signals are standardised with red on top, amber in the middle, and green at the bottom. Only one colour shows at a time; unlike the UK, there is no red and amber phase indicating the lights will shortly change to green.

The following lights occur: they have the same meaning on vehicles:

Vehicle-mounted lights

Certain vehicles are fitted with flashing lights to warn road users.

City driving

Part of Auckland's Central Motorway Junction, known as Spaghetti Junction

In urban areas the speed limit is 50 km/h unless there are signs indicating otherwise.

Auckland is the largest city, and drivers will encounter some traffic congestion at peak times, which remains mild by international standards. Other major cities such as Wellington also have traffic jams around 08:00 and 17:00 on key roads in and out of the city. At off-peak times driving from the city to the airport can take 25 min. In peak times it can take up to an hour, but generally 40 min, to travel the same route. There are areas of extensive road building/improvements through the city and can cause delays where they meet the existing network. Note that particularly in Auckland but anywhere in the country, roads do not often follow a grid pattern and fog can be an early-morning obstacle. Remain alert.

While there are not large numbers of one-way streets in New Zealand, Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch do have one-way systems or significant one-way streets in the cities' central business districts. Be particularly careful in Wellington where not only one-way streets but also bus-only streets exist. Also, be particularly careful of the unusually high kerbs in Wellington, which can cause a driver to scrape the paintwork or undercarriage of the car when normally they would expect only the tires to hit the kerb.

Open road

Due to the low population density, motorways (freeways) and expressways in New Zealand are concentrated around the major cities of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The Waikato Expressway from southern Auckland to Hamilton is the only substantive inter-city expressway, and even then it is only 80% complete, with two sections of two-lane undivided road in the middle of it. Elsewhere, New Zealand highways are mainly two-lane undivided sealed roads.

The speed limit on the main highways and motorways is 100 km/h for cars, but only 90 km/h for buses and trucks (this is any vehicle over 3500 kg (7700 lb), including large camper-vans) and vehicles towing trailers. Some semi-rural roads have 70 km/h or 80 km/h limits, especially approaching and leaving urban areas. The Auckland Harbour Bridge and the Central Motorway Junction in Auckland have an 80 km/h limit.

"Open road" sign

Be aware not all road signs follow the international standard and "open-road-signs" are still in use in less used roads. These are white signs with a black stripe across them which denote a 100 km/h zone. But drivers are expected to adjust their speed in bad conditions (it is unlikely that you will be fined for travelling at 100 km/h even in relatively bad conditions on the "open road"). However, caution is advised as many of these roads are in comparatively poor condition with potholes, etc. making some of them dangerous even at the best of times).

Be careful when turning into side roads while in rural areas. Stopping in the middle of the road while waiting to turn often results in a rear collision. Drivers may wait to the left of the road instead of the middle.

Warning sign showing the suggested speed for an upcoming curve (in this case, 35 km/h)

Rural roads can vary dramatically. Most state highways and rural roads can be winding, fast, have one lane on each side of the road, and have tight corners. While the speed limit is freeway-like (100 km/h), the conditions are more dangerous than freeways as there is no barrier separating you from oncoming traffic. Modern sections of rural state highway (built or rebuilt since the mid-1980s) are usually built to a high standard with wide lanes and shoulders, and fast curves designed to be taken at 100 km/h, although they are still only one lane in each direction with no median barrier. Oblong black and yellow arrow signs with a number (e.g. "65") approximately indicate the tightness of an upcoming turn; the number indicates an appropriate speed (in km/h) to travel at through the corner. (Two separate signs showing the curve and its suggested speed are also commonly used.) In good conditions an experienced driver may be able to take the bend at up to 10–20 km/h more than the marked speed. However for signs reading 45 or less the speed advice should be taken literally as all 45 km/h turns are tight corners and it is hard to remain in your lane at above this speed. Also in bad weather it is often necessary to follow precisely the advice of all these signs.

Legal issues and safety


A small allowance is made for inaccurate speedometers, so many drivers travel at 100–104 km/h on the open road. Officially though, the Police have a no-tolerance policy and can issue tickets for any speed over the limit. Police will fine you for only going 5 km/h over the speed limit if you are caught speeding near a school, and during holiday periods and long weekends. Further, police occasionally issue fines (infringement notices) for driving at or below the sign-posted speed limits when there is no need to and also where a vehicle's speed is excessive for the driving conditions (e.g. in crowded streets in town centres or on icy roads).

Travelling more than 40 km/h over any speed limit is considered dangerous driving and will result in arrest, suspension of driver's licence and possible impounding of the vehicle if caught by police. Failing to stop for Police when directed (e.g. flashing red and blue lights/siren) may also result in an arrest, as Police will pursue a fleeing vehicle unless doing so would endanger other road users.

The police operate a dedicated Highway Patrol who have the responsibility of enforcing traffic laws and assist at accidents. These vehicles are marked in yellow, blue and white (rather than the orange, blue and white of other police vehicles). Unmarked (or mufti) patrol vehicles are also used. However, all Police officers are expected to stop offending motorists if traffic offending is observed. However, it is rare for (non-Highway Patrol) Police officers to concentrate on offences other than speeding. Police officers are required to ensure a steady flow of traffic by ensuring overly slow drivers pull over and let traffic past; however, this behaviour is rarely observed.

Speed cameras operate from the back of unmarked cars and vans and from camera boxes in fixed positions. Police also use hand-held laser speed guns and may operate hidden speed cameras. An innocent looking parked van or car or that cream or silver box on a pole at the side of the road may or may not contain a camera – best to assume that it does. The official policy is to target those areas with disproportionately high accident statistics.

Take extra care at observing speed limits as you pass through small towns. There are often speed cameras just past where the speed limit drops to 50 km/h, such as the fixed speed cameras entering Bulls from the south as with Palmerston North.

Also be sure to obey temporary speed restrictions put in place for road works and special events, even when there is no evidence of work actually in progress. When resealing has taken place, the limit is often left in place for a couple of weeks until loose stones have disappeared or been swept. Being caught driving at more than 80 km/h in a temporary 30 km/h zone will lead to automatic loss of driving licence plus a heavy fine. Do not be surprised if long lengths of highway have 30 km/h restrictions despite there not being any sign of road works or workmen; this is notoriously commonplace to drivers' frustration.

Drinking and driving

New Zealand Police strictly enforce alcohol limits for drivers: 0.05 BAC (i.e. 50mg per 100mL of blood) for drivers 20yr and over, and 0.00 BAC (zero) for drivers under 20. Police often set up checkpoints, sometimes around a whole city centre, and even on motorway on-ramps. Any and every traffic stop is also an opportunity for testing for drink-driving. Police use breath alcohol test devices to detect drivers who have been drinking. Drivers who fail these roadside screening tests will be asked to undertake an evidential breath and/or blood alcohol test. Refusal will result in arrest.

If you are caught over the limit but under 0.08 BAC for drivers 20 and over, or 0.03 BAC for drivers under 20, you will receive an on-the-spot $200 fine and 50 points on your licence (gaining 100 points within two years will result in a 3-month loss of licence). If you are caught over 0.08/0.03 BAC, you will be required to go to court, where you could face hefty fines, loss of licence and potentially imprisonment.


Wearing seatbelts in cars and vans is compulsory. There are very limited exceptions for medical reasons (with a medical certificate), taxi drivers and some antique cars. All passengers aged 14+ years old are responsible for wearing their own seatbelts, but the driver is responsible for ensuring children, especially under 8's, are restrained in approved child restraints, if they are too small for an ordinary seat belt. If you are in a car, even a taxi, buckle up. You could be fined $150 if you are not wearing your seatbelt, even as a passenger.

Travelling times

As New Zealand roads are narrower than foreigners are used to and covered with hilly terrain, journey times are often longer than expected. Therefore there are more chances of a crash when you are tired. Take plenty of rest before a long drive and take a break after every two hours of driving as well. More information on travelling times and other safety tips while driving in New Zealand is available from Hertz.co.nz.


Rural road near Lake Tekapo
Road near Tekapo after snowfall

Most of New Zealand's roads are single carriageways with only one lane in each direction, few median barriers. Passing (or overtaking) lanes do exist, but are mainly confined to major routes and are often fairly short (rarely over 1000 metres long). Passing lanes may sometimes be legally used by vehicles overtaking in the opposite direction too (but only when the lane is clear- traffic on the same side of the centre line as the passing lane has right of way). This depends on whether the centreline markings have double yellow lines (no crossing) or a single yellow line with a white broken line (crossing permitted from the white line side only), so keep to the left whilst driving in a passing lane except when overtaking.

Except at intersections, where vehicles are turning right, overtaking vehicles must pass on the right. People often overtake by driving on the opposite side of the road. If you choose to overtake then make sure you spend as little time as possible on the opposite side of the road and only overtake when you can maintain at least 100 metres visibility throughout the whole manoeuvre. However, you must take care not to exceed the speed limit at all times, as speeding up to minimise the time spent on the wrong side of the road, will still be viewed by Police officers as dangerous.

Where overtaking is not allowed, the road is marked with a solid yellow line adjacent and to the left of the white dotted centreline. It is illegal to overtake in these zones unless you can do so without crossing the centreline. Never cross a yellow no overtaking line to overtake as these are often the only indication of a hidden dip in the road ahead. These hidden dips could be hiding oncoming traffic that would be impossible to avoid.

On multi-lane roads, each lane is considered a separate road-way and passing on the left can occur provided you stay within the marked lanes. Slower vehicles are expected to travel in the left lane(s) when multiple lanes travel in the same direction, but may not, for example in heavy traffic, or due to convenience of not having to switch lanes. Also a driver is legally obligated, where possible to drive in the left hand lane, however this is rarely if ever enforced.

On two lane roads, slower vehicles are legally obliged to allow faster following traffic to pass when it queues behind them, whenever there is an opportunity to do so. Vehicles will often pull to the left edge of the road and indicate a left signal briefly. However, this behaviour is becoming less widespread, and Police officers will never enforce this obligation.

Overtaking is a notable feature of intercity travel in New Zealand due to the lack of multi-lane motorways. Expect to be constantly overtaking slow, heavily laden trucks and other slower vehicles.

School buses

The speed limit passing a school bus that has stopped for passengers is 20 km/h from either direction. This means you must slow to 20 km/h even if the school bus is on the opposite side of the road. Most school buses have a yellow and black sign saying "SCHOOL" on the front and back, but there are no other warning signs or marking different from any other bus on the road; school buses lack distinctive colouring and are never painted yellow (unless that's the colour scheme of the bus company). There are a lot of school buses on rural roads 07:00-09:00 and 15:00-17:00 on any school day so it pays to take care.


North Island

The main hazards are:

South Island

There are some combined road and rail bridges in the South Island, such as this one on State Highway 6 near Greymouth.

The main hazards are:

See also

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Thursday, March 24, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.